Blogs provide hope in fight against press repression

World press freedom is under threat but has been bolstered by the free speech offered by the expansion of the internet across the globe.

That was the conclusion of a heated debate to mark World Press Freedom Day at Westminster, as press freedom activists became embroiled in a war of words with supporters of blogging and social networking who saw the internet as a way of side-stepping state censorship and media ownership monopolies.

Nearly 100 journalists, activists, MPs, bloggers, academics and students from around the world attended the Unesco-sponsored event and debated the motion: "World press freedom is in retreat worldwide".

Although the audience voted for the motion three to one, the two-hour debate was far from one-sided.

Chairing the event was William Horsley, the chairman of the Association of European Journalists. He asked the audience to remember kidnapped BBC Gaza correspondent Alan Johnston, then spending his 53rd day in captivity.

He said: "In other countries, hundreds of journalists have to suffer violence or imprisonment with little or no support from outside. Koichiro Matsuura [director-general of Unesco] said in his message that 2006 was probably the bloodiest year on record with over 150 media killings."

Miklos Harazti, from the Organisation for the Security and Co-operation in Europe, supported the motion and argued that the world had seen the highest number of deaths for media workers ever in the last year.

He said journalists were not being given any assurances about "justice or the protection or safety of the profession" and warned against a growing monopolisation of media ownership in Russia, where, because of state control of the media, "you get the same news on every channel".

Opposing the motion were Stephen Whittle, former BBC controller of editorial policy, and political blogger Ian Dale. Whittle said: "I believe that media freedom, far from being in retreat is growing. In many ways media freedom is on the march," he said.

Referring to the media freedom campaigners' assertion that press freedom is retreating in Russia, he said: "Over the last two years in my visits to countries in Eastern Europe, in all these places you will find journalists beginning to flex their muscles for the cause of media freedom.

"What's encouraging is that there are so many people in difficult circumstances that are willing to take up that fight."

Whittle argued that in the last year British journalists have submitted hundreds of successful requests using the Freedom of Information Act and that blogging and "citizen journalism" were only increasing the level of freedom worldwide.

Dale, who runs the online political TV station 18 Doughty Street, said that people across the world now had access to almost limitless information and free methods of communicating on a mass scale.

He said: "It may appear difficult to be optimistic about press freedom but we ought to be. We should be celebrating the fact that we now the most independent, most diverse and freest press in the entire world.

"Until recently the media was two-dimensional – print and broadcast. But the advent of the internet has changed all that. It can truly be said to have given people a voice.

"Everyone's got a voice through the plethora of online forums, social communities and blogs that have sprung up on the internet in the last few years. There are no boundaries beyond an internet connection

"Blogs have liberated people with something to say and there are 70 million in the world – they have become a vital means of communication for people in parties of the world where the traditional media cannot remotely be said to be free."

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